Infrastructure Investment: We Want It All

Article originally appears in UpHere, May 2019

Not long after he became the first NWT minister of infrastructure in 2017, Wally Schumann attended a national meeting of provincial and territorial ministers led by Marc Garneau, the federal minister of transportation. It was a memorable moment, one that Schumann likes to recall today. It began with Garneau telling the assembled politicians that he had $1 billion to spend on transportation. Unfortunately, that was for the entire country. Schumann didn’t mince words in his response. “I put up my hand and said, ‘Well, this isn’t going to work. I could spend a billion dollars in the NWT in a heartbeat.’”

He was being generous with his time estimates. You could spend that amount three times over in the space of a single cardiac pulse. That’s every bit as true in the Yukon and Nunavut as it is in the NWT. For Schumann, however, the story is not about the North’s yawning infrastructure gap. It’s about how that meeting led to a successful collaboration among ministers to get billions more into Garneau’s funding pot, developments the federal government later built on with major infrastructure programs under its $180-billion Investing in Canada plan.

This is all good news. But Northerners can be forgiven if they feel impatient. New roads, electrical grids and communication networks could unleash the economic potential of the territories. Yet support, especially federal support, appears slow and often piecemeal—a modest section of highway constructed, a feasibility study funded, a bridge upgraded. The pace and commitment can be erratic—the decades it has taken to finally start construction on a port facility in Iqaluit is a case in point—or so slow that the opportunity targeted by an investment has passed by when the first shovels hit the ground. As CBC North asked in November 2017, during its coverage of the opening of the Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk Highway, “will the $300 million price tag be worth it?”